The Mechanics of Homework

The homework wars among education wonks, teachers and parents don’t, as my friend and colleague Bruce Feiler writes in “The Homework Squabbles,” his This Life column for Sunday Styles, matter much on the scale at which most families are dealing with homework. To us, the question of how valuable homework is has to be set aside daily in the name of the backpacks, folders, binders and worksheets full of the stuff that our children actually bring home. And it’s worth noting that this idea of “too much homework” as a national problem is a myth. Instead, homework is something of an ironic twist in the American inequality story, with the more pressing problem being with the children who have too little rather than those who have too much.

But for the privileged families to whom homework unquestionably does not feel like a privilege (and mine is one of them), the mechanics of how to get the homework done loom large. Especially at this time of year, as parents and students are getting back into the groove of homework, questions of when and how and where can make us feel like we’re once again reinventing the homework wheel. That’s true at my house. In spite of a long-standing hands-off approach, and an attempt to set timers to focus my younger children on staying on task while limiting the time homework takes, homework is really wreaking havoc on our afternoons and evenings.

Bruce pulled together advice from experts and from parents whose experience makes them expert on everything from the when and where of homework to how involved a parent should be. How is the self-reliance we all hope our children will achieve best encouraged? What kind of help motivates, and what kind is too much? Is there any defense for the beloved teenage (and adult) habit of multitasking? Their answers are worth reading.

In spite of our timers (which we’re using more when necessary than as a habit, with two children relying more on them than others), and in spite of the fact that at the moment, homework is feeling like an instrument of torture designed to destroy my relationship with my two younger children, homework mechanics at our house haven’t changed much this year, and they won’t. It’s done in the kitchen unless you’d prefer to go elsewhere, or unless your method of objecting to the homework you’ve been given is detrimental to the ability of others to do theirs. Need help? I help sound out spelling on difficult words, but your teacher doesn’t want to know what I’ve learned through research about horse hooves. Frustrated with how much there is? I sing one song again and again in many keys: If you put the time into doing the homework that you’ve put into complaining about it, you’d be done by now. Just put one foot in front of the other, my friend.

Right now, two weeks in, it feels like I’ll be repeating myself all year. Like we’ll never pass another evening without a child strewn across the floor of the kitchen, screaming “but it’s too hard” or somehow managing to spend 90 minutes copying 20 spelling words 3 times each. Like every night, the homework, timers or no, will drag on past dinner, past soccer practice, toward bedtime and beyond.

But I’m relying on the curative powers of time and habit to work their magic. I know that what takes over an hour now will take far less time once my children stop spinning their pencils and get down to it. I know that once she knows it isn’t going to help, the child will get up off the floor and get it done. And I know that the homework habit, timers or no, takes time to develop.

We go through this every September. Some things change, some thing stay the same. The second grader who could gaze into space for hours at our house turned into the fifth grader who could buckle down, but couldn’t plan, who eventually turned into the eighth grader who knows that if it’s due next week, now’s the time to start, even if he doesn’t always pull it off. He still has plenty of room to improve, but he will. His siblings, I hope, will follow, but it doesn’t have to happen — it isn’t going to happen — today, or even this week.

What will happen is that the mechanics, like everything else, will evolve along with the children and the year. Some nights homework will progress in an orderly fashion in the kitchen; other nights someone will be stuck doing it in the lobby of a hockey rink. Some projects will happen in a timely way, others will be left until the last minute. Some homework will be a child’s best work. Some won’t be done at all.

When things go wrong‚ and they will, I’ll fall back on this: Learning to deal with your mistakes and roll with the things you can’t control is an important lesson. The one thing I know about homework at our house is that it’s pretty much guaranteed to offer my kids the opportunity to learn it.

Note: The original post stated that the author’s children were capable of spending 90 minutes copying 20 spelling words 30 times each. They have never been assigned so much; they are asked to copy the words 3 times each.

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Stop telling your kids to be fair. You’re making them more selfish.

“Make sure you play fairly,” parents often say to their kids. In fact, children do not need encouragement to be fair. It is a natural feature of human social life, which emerges in childhood. When given the opportunity to share sweets equally, young children tend to behave selfishly but, by about eight years old, most prefer to distribute resources to avoid inequalities, at least among members of their own social group.

Biologists are surprised by this tendency to behave fairly. The theory of evolution by natural selection predicts that individuals should behave in ways to maximize their inclusive fitness. So behaviors are only selected, and hence evolve, if they ensure the survival and reproduction of the actor or kin who contains copies of the actor’s genes. However, the behavior displayed by children seems to be at a detriment to themselves, especially when those who benefit from their selfless behavior are not the children’s kin.

A child’s sense of fairness, egalitarianism, or aversion to inequality can actually be hampered by instruction to “be fair” and rewarding of this behavior. That is because what is the child’s intrinsic motivation, becomes a need to follow externally imposed rules. And, as we all know, following rules we believe in is far easier than following rules that are imposed upon us, despite attendant punishments for not doing so.

Humans are proactively pro-social. We are often motivated to help others without those others signaling their need, such as begging, or displaying signs of need, such as crying.

As cultural practices are not responsible for children developing their initial pro-social tendencies, it is thought that a sense of fairness must have been under strong positive selection during human evolution.

In a new review published in the journal Science, Sarah Brosnan of Georgia State University and Frans de Waal of Emory University explore this topic by trying to explain how our response to fairness, and unfairness, evolved. Their review is based on a large number of studies with non-human animals regarding their responses to receiving more or less (inequity), rather than the same (equity), reward as others for undertaking the same task.

Species of primates, dogs, birds and fish have been studied. The overall results indicate that responses to disadvantageous inequity, say, protesting when another receives more banana pieces than you for pulling the same rope, are strongest in species that co-operate with others outside of mating and kinship bonds. This includes capuchin monkeys, chimpanzees and the ancestors of dogs. In other words, animals, including humans, that cooperate with non-kin have evolved sensitivity to detrimental unfairness so that they can avoid being taken advantage of.

However, what is less common in the animal kingdom, is sensitivity to advantageous inequity, or protest when you receive more reward than another for the same task. Such inequity aversion, at a cost to oneself, has only been recorded in humans and chimpanzees.

Brosnan and de Waal propose that the motivation to seek equal rewards, despite disadvantaging oneself, is to prevent dissatisfaction of the co-operative partner and avoid any negative outcomes that may follow. The main negative outcomes are the likelihood of conflict and loss of future advantageous co-operation with the partner.

Also, one’s reputation is tainted, reducing the chances of forming future beneficial partnerships. When we humans “play fair” we are doing so, according to Brosnan and de Waal, not due to a motivation for “equality for its own sake but for the sake of continued cooperation”.

Humans have enlarged brains, which enhance our ability to understand the benefits of self-control in dividing resources. We also have language, which allows for enhanced reputation building. Because responsiveness to advantageous inequity is only seen in humans and chimpanzees, Brosnan and de Waal hypothesise that its evolution, since the split from other primates, was the starting point for the eventual development of the advanced sense of fairness displayed by humans.

The many heroic and selfless actions of individual humans, for example rescuing strangers in mortal danger and money or blood donation, are inspiring and admirable. Yet, however distasteful to contemplate, it is likely that these individuals gain in terms of their reputation and future cooperation from others, known as indirect reciprocity. If extreme prosociality is a “costly signal” indicating one’s worth to future mates, it makes sense that highly visible individuals, such as celebrities, may feel the most pressure to act charitably.

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Planting the Seeds of Mindfulness

My five-year-old daughter flipped out this morning when she learned that she needed to get a blood test. While I’m not a big fan of tearful wailing at 8:00 AM, I have to admit that flipping out is a perfectly reasonable response to the thought of having a complete stranger stick a needle in your arm. Especially when you’re just five years old.

We’ve been through our fair share of flip-outs, and they usually end with some variation of either snuggles or shouts (from both of us), but this time I tried something new. Perhaps it’s because I actually got eight hours of sleep last night, or perhaps it’s because I’m working on a new book about teaching mindfulness to children, but I actually had an idea.

Earlier this morning, my daughter has asked me if I had meditated after I woke up, and it just so happens that I had, so I knew meditation was on her mind. As she sat at the dining room table, sobbing into her cereal, I told her that one reason I meditate is so I can practice choosing my thoughts, so I can get better at keeping the ones I want and getting ride of the ones I don’t.

This may seem like a pretty basic idea, but it was absolutely life-changing for me—a clinical social worker who was trained to believe that our thoughts are deeply meaningful and must be examined in great detail—to learn that thoughts are just thoughts. Perhaps they are random firings of neurons, monkeys flinging shit around our brain, or divine insights; regardless, no one knows where they come from, what their purpose is, or how to control them. They’re only as important as we let them be and we certainly don’t have to let them define our experience. We are not our thoughts, and we don’t have to assign them any more or less meaning than we want to. This is a fundamental concept in mindfulness, which is all about paying attention in a conscious, curious way, which often involves letting go of judgmental or unskillful thoughts.

For better or for worse, I decided it was time to introduce this idea to my daughter. It seemed to spark a little interest in her, but she wasn’t sure if knew how to get rid of the bad or sad or mad thoughts. We talked about sending them away, perhaps in a car that would drive them down the road, or a boat that would float away on a river. She seemed to like this idea, so she hopped out of her seat and got out my meditation cushion to give it a shot. (Meanwhile, my 4 year old announced that she was going to eat the bad thoughts. I wasn’t sure if that was such a good idea until my older daughter decided she had to pee, at which point my husband chimed in that perhaps the girls could, in fact, eat their bad thoughts and then flush them down the toilet. Not exactly the metaphor I was going for, but I have to admit it works.)

I’d love to tell you that my clever plan to teach my daughter to choose her thoughts worked flawlessly, but let’s be honest here, people. She’s just a kid with a still-developing brain and the coping skills of a five-year-old. I’m 36 with a well-developed brain (or so I like to think) and moderately decent coping skills, and I still struggle to recognize and let go of my unskillful or unhelpful thoughts. She still had a rough morning in anticipation of the blood draw.

The point of my conversation with her about choosing thoughts wasn’t to solve the immediate problem of her desire not to have a needle stuck in her arm. I knew that was going to have to happen, and I knew that no matter what, she was going to be seriously pissed and scared about it. (Which is why I asked my husband to take her to the lab; knowing what you can manage what you should outsource is another important skill of mindful parenting.) Rather, my goal this morning was to introduce the idea that our thoughts don’t have to define our reality. I was just trying to plant some seeds of mindful thinking in my daughter’s consciousness, with the hope that at some point they will eventually sprout and grow.

Of course, the other point was to get her to stop crying long enough so I could get some coffee down my gullet, which I actually was able to do. As I always say: in the absence of mindfulness, caffeine and chocolate.

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Teaching Children Empathy

When Harvard University’s Making Caring Common Project released their report, “The Children We Mean to Raise: The Real Messages Adults Are Sending About Values,” many parents and educators — myself included — were surprised to learn that despite all our talk about instilling character and empathy, kids may value academic achievement and individual happiness over caring for others. In the report, the authors explained that the children’s values reflected what they believe adults value.

In the wake of these dispiriting study results, the Making Caring Common Project and the Ashoka Empathy Initiative created a set of recommendations for teaching empathy to children.

Empathy goes beyond being able to see another person’s point of view, Rick Weissbourd, the co-director of the Making Caring Common Project, explained in an email. He points out that sales people, politicians, actors and marketers are able to do this kind of “perspective-taking” in pursuit of their professional goals. Con men and torturers use this ability to manipulate their victims for personal gain. In order to be truly empathetic, children need to learn more than simple perspective-taking; they need to know how to value, respect and understand another person’s views, even when they don’t agree with them. Empathy, Mr. Weissbourd argues, is a function of both compassion and of seeing from another person’s perspective, and is the key to preventing bullying and other forms of cruelty.

To that end, the project offers these five suggestions for developing empathy in children:

1. Empathize with your child and model how to feel compassion for others.

Kids develop these qualities by watching us and experiencing our empathy for them. When we show that we truly know our children by understanding and reacting to their emotional needs, exhibiting interest and involvement in their lives, and respecting their personalities, they feel valued. Children who feel valued are more likely to value others and demonstrate respect for their needs. When we treat other people like they matter, our kids notice, and are more likely to emulate our acts of caring and compassion.

2. Make caring for others a priority and set high ethical expectations.

Kids need to know that we are not simply paying lip service to empathy, that we show caring and compassion in our everyday lives. Rather than say, “The most important thing is that you are happy,” try: “The most important thing is that you’re kind and that you are happy.” Prioritize caring when you talk about others, and help your child understand that the world does not revolve around them or their needs.

3. Provide opportunities for children to practice.

Empathy, like other emotional skills, requires repitition to become second nature. Hold family meetings and involve kids by challenging them to listen to and respect others’ perspectives. Ask children about conflicts at school and help them reflect on their classmates’ experiences. If another child is unpopular or having social problems, talk about how that child may be feeling about the situation, and ask your child how he or she may be able help.

4. Expand your child’s circle of concern.

It’s not hard for kids to empathize with their immediate family and close friends, but it can be a real challenge to understand and feel for people outside of that circle. You can help your child expand their circle by “zooming in and zooming out”; listening carefully to a particular person and then pulling back to take in multiple perspectives. Encourage your child to talk about and speculate on the feelings of people who are particularly vulnerable or in need. Talk about how those people could be helped and comforted.

5. Help children develop self-control and manage feelings effectively.

Even when kids feel empathy for others, societal pressures and prejudices can block their ability to express their concern. When kids are angry with each other over a perceived slight, for example, it can be a real challenge for them to engage their sense of empathy. Encourage kids to name those stereotypes and prejudices, and to talk about their anger, envy, shame and other negative emotions. Model conflict resolution and anger management in your own actions, and let your kids see you work through challenging feelings in your own life.

Educators will tell you that a classroom full of empathetic kids simply runs more smoothly than one filled with even the happiest group of self-serving children. Similarly, family life is more harmonious when siblings are able feel for each other and put the needs of others ahead of individual happiness. If a classroom or a family full of caring children makes for a more peaceful and cooperative learning environment, just imagine what we could accomplish in a world populated by such children.

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